It’s a tale told joyfully and told often, gobbling up film, stage, and audio adaptations with incredible regularity. Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol,” has been reworked and reheated time and again, and who could blame anyone for trying? Perhaps the perfect tale of rekindled morality set against the backdrop of the most enchanting of holiday seasons, “Carol” is brought back to life for another cinematic go-around, this time through the eyes of writer/director Robert Zemeckis and the efforts of his motion capture (mo-cap) animation tools. While shadowing Dickens’s work as much as it can, the latest “Carol” takes a bold technological leap forward, permitting a newly abstract take on a perennial saga of remorse.
A shriveled, angular miser, Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Jim Carrey), has allowed his heart to harden over the years, shutting out the affections of his nephew, Fred (Colin Firth), and making life difficult for sole employee, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman). To help mend his miserable ways, the spirit of old business partner Jacob Marley (Oldman) warns Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts: Christmas Past (Carrey), Christmas Present (Carrey), and Christmas Yet to Come. Sweeping Scrooge up into the sky, the spirits show the vile man the error of his ways, detailing a life of misery if he continues down a path of bitterness.
Zemeckis first toyed with mo-cap on 2004’s holiday extravaganza, “The Polar Express.” It was an experimental triumph, showing off the dynamic range of the animation and the performances, allowed free range to make it all come to sparkling life. 2007’s “Beowulf” divided audiences, but nevertheless proved again that mo-cap permitted Zemeckis to seek out new avenues of artistic release, indulging grand visions of camera fluidity and thespian dexterity. Certainly his live-action work is missed, but Zemeckis has found a singular inspiration with mo-cap that’s heartening to behold.
“A Christmas Carol” submits a unique challenge for Zemeckis and the mo-cap aesthetic. It’s a legendary story, immortalized in a thousand different forms. The repetition urges the filmmaker to challenge the staleness of the tale, working the mo-cap buttons and levers to reimagine a Dickensian world with stunning 360 degree detail (enchanced brilliantly if one chooses a 3-D theatrical experience) live-action can’t quite accomplish on a sensible budget. It goes beyond chipped cobblestones and apple cheeks to the otherworldly tangents of the source material, depicting three ghosts with mysterious, unsettling powers of persuasion that have the sort of silver screen dynamism Zemeckis loves to fiddle with.
The animation in “Carol” is constantly spectacular, reworking known elements into graphic, riveting extremes. Scrooge isn’t simply a man of meager soul, but a near-reptilian creature folding at the waist, excited only by money and cruelty. The CG work enjoys the challenge of representation, merging the features of the actors with the exaggeration of the characters. While Scrooge is nicely crusted and skeletal (losing Carrey’s distinct Carreyisms in the process), the rest of the roles find a happy medium between literary homage and modern star power, with little recognizable patches of Oldman and Firth (along with Robin Wright Penn and Bob Hoskins in various supporting roles) fed into the plump, Victorian spirit.
Behind the animated flamboyance are performances that tunnel deep into the dramatic possibilities of the material. It should be noted that this “Carol” is perhaps the least emotionally gluey version in quite some time, with Zemeckis utilizing great passages of silence and discombobulating psychedelics to articulate Scrooge’s illuminating interaction with the three ghosts. The film is cold to the touch, but not easily written off. Jim Carrey’s lead performance contains heady passages of pathos within a remarkable piece of acting that not only burrows into Scrooge’s panic, but also his disorientation near the phantoms, who offer the miserable man passage to a bleak future. It’s a vocal fantasia for Carrey, creatively working through the multiple roles, with only animation flourishes giving him away.
While sticking close to Dickens, Zemeckis runs off to play with a few choice moments of action. The best features Scrooge shrunk down to the size of a pencil by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, scurrying through sewers and nervously riding bottles as he avoids future’s wrath. Yielding to this sort of tomfoolery is understandable, considering the stillness of the film and the stark depiction of doomsday decision making, which helps the movie to an intense PG rating. Zemeckis staging elaborate leaps, smashes, and scares is always wonderful thing, allowing for a “Carol” that stays within a boundary of reverential behavior, yet prepared to blast off when the mood strikes.
“Carol” isn’t a warm, comforting hug of a feature film. Its sympathies are projected subtlety, assembling a moody picture of extraordinary technical achievement, not a glazed retelling of holiday reform. The distance is unavoidable, but my hope is that audiences take the opportunity to drink in the astonishing craftsmanship of the film and welcome its unsettling atmosphere. Robert Zemeckis may not have you reaching for the tissues by the end of the picture, but “A Christmas Carol” should drop a few jaws with its sterling animated achievements.